The New Oregon Trail
How immigration attorney Stephen Manning is fighting exclusion orders and deportations
Published in 2017 Oregon Super Lawyers magazine
on July 10, 2017
Updated on July 20, 2017
One of the many tributes to pioneers who risked death and disease to cross North America is a century-old former bank building in downtown Portland called the Oregon Trail Building. Its current occupants include a web-design firm, investment managers, the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber, and, most fittingly, Immigrant Law Group, where Stephen Manning practices with partners Jessica Boell and Jennifer Rotman. Most of their clients face a challenge as frightening as a months-long wagon journey. Seeking refuge from war, murder, rape and political persecution, they must also surmount an increasingly unwelcoming U.S. immigration system.
The walls of the firm’s fifth-floor offices feature photos of children, Portland landmarks and American flags. Kids’ drawings surround the reception desk. Flyers on a corkboard offer “Five reasons to become a U.S. citizen.”
It’s a morning in late February and Manning says work lately has been “crazy.” It’s obvious why, but the question needs to be asked.
“Because we’ve elected a federal executive that’s intending to use executive powers to engage in a mass depopulation of the United States,” Manning says.
Two weeks earlier, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling by a federal district judge in Seattle blocking President Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. Leaks were starting to emerge about what a revised ban might look like, and people were worried. The previous day, Immigrant Law Group recorded more than 500 phone calls—as opposed to the 50 or so Manning guesses it received on the same day a year earlier. Manning has been fielding calls, visiting airports, filing amicus briefs and suing the federal government on behalf of his clients. About 60 percent of his time is spent on Oregon-based cases; the rest involves travel to cities such as Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“People hire me to prevent deportation, to end unnecessary or prolonged detention, to unify families that have been separated by border issues, to seek asylum because they’ve been harmed in the past or they’ll be harmed in the future,” he says. “I’ve been doing that for a long time.”
He wears a blue-and-white striped dress shirt, jeans, multicolored socks and black shoes tied with purple shoelaces. It’s an ensemble that complements the room’s colorful furniture, not to mention the framed certificate on a window ledge lauding him as “Most Festive Attorney.” An old chest in the corner hints at the many adventures he and husband Jim Wilson have taken climbing mountain peaks all over the world.
“It’s just a fast-moving and diverse [practice],” Boell says. “He stays joyful through all of it. He carries a lot of joy and energy. It’s really fun to work with him.”
“I think I’m really blessed,” Manning adds. “I walk into the office around 7:30 and then it’s 6 p.m. at night and I’m like, ‘Whoa, what happened with this day?’”
Maintaining that attitude is a bit more challenging these days. Invoking Game of Thrones, Manning mentions it’s no longer sufficient to say “Winter is Coming.”
“Winter has totally arrived,” he says.
J. Ashlee Albies is a Portland-based civil rights and employment lawyer who met Manning while working on campaigns where their practice areas intersected.
“When he says something like that, it sends a chill down my spine,” Albies says. “Because I know he knows.”
Manning describes his legal career as “penance” for a momentary, naïve assumption.
He was born and raised in Bradford, Pennsylvania, to a seamstress mother and an electrician father. Upon graduating college in 1992, realizing he’d never been west of his native time zone, Manning, on a whim, drove across the country to Oregon. With only a few hundred dollars in his pocket, he camped on national forest land for months while looking for work.
By the mid-’90s, Manning, who is fluent in Spanish, was volunteering for a program called the Touchstone Project at an elementary school in North Portland. Most of his students came from Spanish-speaking immigrant families. He would show students’ parents how to help the kids with their homework. But when some of his second-graders weren’t turning in their assignments, and Manning asked why, they said it was pointless because they were going to be deported.
“You’re not going to be deported,” Manning recalls telling them. “That’s ridiculous. No one deports second-graders.” (Manning interrupts this story to point out that the average age of the people currently detained at a facility in Dilley, Texas, is 6 years old.)
So Manning decided to pay a visit to one student’s home, where he asked the multigenerational Salvadoran family to get in his car so he could sort out the problem. They asked where he wanted to go and he said, “Immigration.”
Horrified, they told Manning to stop the car. Instead, he locked the door and kept driving, insisting that he had the situation covered. He thought he could just get in line with the family, ask for papers to fill out, and sort out their status. “Like all good Americans, I think there’s a line people can actually stand in, and it’s just pretty straightforward, right?” Manning recalls thinking.
The staff at the immigration facility told Manning that the family could be deported right then; in fact, they should leave immediately. Mortified, Manning took the family to a nonprofit law firm, Immigration Counseling Service, which agreed to help. (Many in the family ultimately became U.S. citizens; Manning sees them regularly.) Then he decided to volunteer at ICS. He became a protégé of its founder, the late Margaret Godfrey, and, inspired, decided to attend Lewis & Clark Law School.
Manning passed the bar on, of all days, Sept. 10, 2001. The next day’s attacks were followed by what he calls a racialized “power grab” that included the first mass registration of immigrants from Muslim countries. Suddenly his constitutional law classes seemed relevant.
Both Manning and Boell appreciated the work they were doing at ICS but found the nonprofit environment constraining. He remembers thinking: “Look, we need to sue; we need to right some of these wrongs that are happening.”
Boell and Manning began their partnership in 2002 and Rotman joined soon afterward. They’ve since added a support staff of 14. “We each have our own cases,” Boell says, “but we always collaborate in terms of strategies, legal arguments and best practices. The three of us have always been really tight-knit and collaborative, and a team.”
A key moment came in 2014. Over the previous three years, thousands fled to the United States as murders by MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang spiked in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—largely targeting women and often involving sexual violence. That June, officials in the Obama administration shifted their characterization of this migration from a humanitarian crisis to a national security threat. According to a report prepared by Manning the following year, that shift gave the administration justification for a plan to deport hundreds of asylum-seekers, most of whom were women and children.
In legal circles, word spread that some of these women and children were being detained at a razor wire-encircled law enforcement training facility in Artesia, a remote town in southeastern New Mexico. Allegedly the government planned to deport the detainees without interviewing them about their asylum applications. So Manning and a brigade of Oregon lawyers joined attorneys from across the country and traveled to New Mexico to learn more about the situation. Catching the government off guard, they were able to talk to a few of the detainees. In turn, these women told the rest to write down their names and ID numbers. The lawyers could then insist on meetings with the women.
“They ended up with, ultimately, hundreds of detainees who came in asking for advice, for legal representation,” says Juliet Stumpf, a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School who contributed to the work at Artesia.
To manage the volume of asylum claims, lawyers devised a system to break up their work into discrete legal tasks so new attorneys could take over whenever necessary. Better, after Manning engaged colleagues to code software for a client-management tool, lawyers across the country who wanted to assist the Artesia project could suddenly plug in and contribute.
“Big law uses attorneys in exactly the same way,” Stumpf says. “The attorneys themselves become fungible.”
Sixteen asylum cases were litigated at Artesia. Manning and his allies won all of them; one is currently on appeal.
“It takes a certain amount of vision, creativity and courage to say, ‘Let’s represent everybody and we’re just going to make it happen,’ and then actually make it happen,” Stumpf says.
Meanwhile, a 2,400-bed detention center opened in Dilley, Texas, as did another facility in Karnes City, Texas. Thanks to the model developed at Artesia, eventually called the Innovation Law Lab, similar collaborations got moving quickly.
“You would never know about the inordinate amount of work he’s put in, because on the surface it all appears to happen very seamlessly,” Melissa Crow, the legal director at the American Immigration Council, says of Manning’s role in the lab’s development.
Manning enlisted a professional developer to improve the software originally coded at Artesia, but the Law Lab isn’t just about software. It also developed “centers of excellence” in various cities to focus immigration law strategy. One such center in Portland has trained 150 lawyers to represent clients seeking asylum on a pro bono basis. The third prong of the lab, the overarching Big Immigration Law Project, aims to aggregate power among lawyers in the immigration sphere. All of this helps explain why Manning participated in a “Crowdsourcing Justice” panel at this year’s South by Southwest conference. The ultimate goal, he says, is for immigration cases to be adjudicated more fairly.
“Lawyers can be health-bringers to a system that’s gone wrong,” he says.
Manning says he couldn’t do it without the support of his husband, an architect.
“He’s the one who lets me do it all,” Manning says. “I have no idea what I contribute to the relationship. I show up. He takes care of me. He feeds me. He makes sure I’m healthy. He says, ‘Go forth and do good stuff.’”
Manning and Wilson host regular salon-style dinner parties in the home they built, and both are active climbers, skiers and swimmers. “Stephen recognizes the need to recharge,” says Crow. “On occasion I’ve tried to reach him, only to learn he’s climbing an ice-covered mountain in Peru.”
That type of passion has been necessary during the early days of the Trump administration, Manning says. Through March, he and his colleagues have challenged the president’s exclusion orders in court and joined protests against the executive orders at the Portland International Airport. In mid-March, the Innovation Law Lab convened a meeting of scholars and activists to dissect the new administration’s “constitutionally risky experiments” in immigration, according to Manning: how they impact Oregonians, and how the public can respond. When a DREAMer who ran a Portland food pantry was arrested, Manning met with the man’s family and joined the ACLU in speaking out on his behalf.
“People who engage in immigration,” Manning says, “who engage in seeking asylum, have human stories of hope, fears, dreams of resilience, of suffering, and my role is to ask them, ‘Tell me your life. Tell me what’s happening to you and tell me what your future is. Tell me your fears. Tell me your dreams.’”